Annie asked “why aren’t women more active in the church leadership?” which is a great question. It actually thrilled my little soul because of the way she phrased it. Instead of writing about why women aren’t priests, I get to address the much less discussed topic of why the leadership of the Catholic Church is not only male, but overwhelmingly male.
First, I should note that it is likely that Catholic women are more active in leadership than most people think. Women run Catholic schools and pastoral councils. Women are diocesan judges and advocates. The number of women working behind the scenes in the Vatican has also risen dramatically since John Paul II became pope. Also, when Catholics think of leadership, we do not just think of those who have temporal power. Even more important than priests, or even the pope, are the Saints who are the spiritual leaders of the Church. For Catholics, Mother Teresa was as much of a leader as John Paul II.
That said, there is no doubt that women have a minor role compared to men in Catholic leadership. Why? Because of sin. The Church is full of sinners, and it is oh-so-very difficult for any group to see the need to share its power with another group. Women had a great role in leadership in the early Church, but as the Church government was formed and influenced by the outside, the patriarchal form partially won out over the example set by Christ. Perhaps part of this was necessary to accommodate culture. Perhaps it was entirely the result of weakness. But in any case, the Catholic Church was clearly influenced by the culture in which it took shape.
To quote Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein):
In the early Church, women played an active part in the various congregational charities, and their intense apostolate as confessors and martyrs had a profound effect. Virginal purity was celebrated in liturgy, and for women there was also a consecrated ecclesiastical office–the diaconate with its special ordination–but the Church did not go so far as to admit them to the priesthood as well. And in later historical developments, women were displaced from these posts; also, it seems that under the influence of the Hebraic and Roman judicial concepts, there was a gradual decline in their canonical status.
Catholic authority is further complicated by the role of ordination. Because women are not priests, it is all too easy to refuse them a place in the group of decision-makers. Bishops have the greatest authority in the Church, and since women are not bishops, they are simply excluded from the highest positions of leadership. Thankfully women are now more frequently brought in as consultants. As far as I am aware, progress is slow but steady.
I remain hopeful because, like Pope Paul VI, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’ words seem only more true after several decades have passed:
a Catholic feminist movement was thought to be impossible when the interdenominational movement when into action. The concept which assumes that everything in the Church is irrevocably set for all times appears to me to be a false one. It would be naive to disregard that the Church has a history; the Church is a human institution and like all things human, was destined to change and to evolve; likewise, its development takes place often in the form of struggles. Most of the definitions of dogma are conclusive results of preceding intellectual conflicts lasting for decades or even centuries. The same is true of ecclesiastical law, liturgical forms–especially all objective forms reflecting our spiritual life.
The Catholic Church has made astounding improvements since the 1930s, and who knows what positions of leadership women will fill in another 70 years? I have great hope that the necessity of change will foster increased perfection under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
I suspect that this post will both fail to satisfy non-Catholics such as Annie, as well as shock many Catholics who would respond that the Church is the way She is because God wants it that way. I do not expect too much of a response with the busyness of the holidays, but for those Catholics who do read this and disagree, please feel free to chime in with your version of why women are not more active in Church leadership.